Editor’s note: This article has been revised to clarify that there are two sign-on letters — one only for national organizations and one for individuals — and to provide an update on the time the organizational sign-on letter will be submitted.
The proposed tax plan drafted by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives contains a provision that would repeal the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” according to a Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) email sent out Dec. 11.
Section 407 of the proposed legislation would amend Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 in a way that would make it possible for houses of faith (and their leaders acting in an official capacity as an organizational representative) to endorse political candidates for office.
The revised language is as follows: “An organization shall not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for a purpose described in subsection (c)(3) [the non-profit, tax-exempt section of the IRS tax code], nor shall it be deemed to have participated in, or intervened in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, solely because of the content of any statement which – ‘(A) is made in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and (B) results in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses.’’’
This is a significant shift from the current IRS guidelines, which state that a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”
Currently, 501(c)(3) organizations (including houses of worship) are prohibited from official endorsements of political candidates if they wish to retain their tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.
Employees of these organizations can speak to political and social issues (including current and proposed laws) and can encourage their members to vote, but they cannot endorse a candidate “from the pulpit” (in other words, in their official capacity leading the organization).
“Section 407 of the tax bill would essentially repeal the Johnson Amendment,” the BJC explained in a document included in its email to constituents. “Under this provision, any tax-exempt organization could endorse a candidate in all the activity it carries out and in all the materials it shares, as long as there is ostensibly another purpose for engaging in those activities or creating those materials. Even one statement of an endorsement could have a huge impact on an election; yet, this provision would allow endorsements to ultimately dominate the organization’s activities.”
Examples provided by the BJC of what the proposed legislation would allow included endorsements of candidates in sermons and church publications, signs on church property urging people to vote for a particular candidate, and political ads during televised worship services.
The BJC email linked to a sign-on letter for national organizations who wish to express their opposition to this policy change, which will be sent to House leaders at noon (EST) on Dec. 13. Individuals who wish to voice their opposition can sign on to a letter here.
The “Johnson Amendment” is widely supported by nonprofits and faith groups, with more than 5,000 nonprofits signing on to a letter in 2017 letting their congressional leaders know that they opposed the current law’s repeal.
A separate letter, signed by more than 100 faith groups, including Baptist Center for Ethics (EthicsDaily.com), was sent to Congress for the same purpose.